Lee Odden

10 Tips: Pre-Hire Checklist for Digital Marketing Agencies

brand agency checklist

A lot of agency blogs don’t talk about the diversity of client experience because they think it may reflect poorly, but it’s simply a reality of varying personalities, a dynamic market and changing organizations. Clearly the goal is retention and our online marketing agency has had clients for over 10 years!

When agencies don’t over-promise and under-deliver, manage expectations properly and actually get great results, you’d think the company and agency relationship would be unstoppable.

With the dynamic nature of digital and online marketing as well as the normal changes in business from new and discontinued products to staff changes to mergers and acquisitions, the assumed success formula for an effective agency and client relationship isn’t always so simple.

Nothing is more frustrating when the optimism of a new marketing consulting project morphs into something very different because of avoidable issues like unclear vision, failure to implement or a newly hired marketing executive that wants to clean house.  While not everything is avoidable or solvable, there are many considerations for companies thinking of hiring a digital or online marketing agency to ensure a longer term and productive relationship. Here are 10 worth considering

1. Why? It sounds so simple but it’s important to be clear why an outside resource is needed. Answering “why” an outside agency or consultant is needed to advance your business goals is as important as answering “why” for a particular agency.

Many companies have never hired a marketing consultant or agency before and don’t know how to run the selection process so it’s important to avoid ambiguity as to why an outside resource is needed as well as what qualities are desired. Other companies are old pros or even go so far as to arrange RFPs and multiple rounds of pitches from competing agencies. Don’t lose the “why” in a long, drawn out selection process.  In the end, someone has to be accountable and a defensible reason for outside help as well as which agency is selected is important.

2. How will you know you’re successful? Goals, objectives and measurement are essential.  We’ve had many, many discussions with prospective clients that want to increase online sales but have no process in place for managing their sales pipleline or reports in their web analytics software that will track leads and sales. Internet marketing is not magic – it’s marketing. That means clear goals, an understanding of audience/target market, strategy, tactics and measurement.

A marketing agency should be able to help with optimizing most if not all of the sales cycle. Think beyond the top of the funnel.

Clarity on what success means is important too. There are a lot of marketing and PR executives out there for example, that still think keyword rankings are the most important success metric for a SEO program (vs. traffic, leads and sales). Make sure you can articulate what success looks like as a result of an engagement with the agency. Program performance is important and so is the working relationship for a successful engagement.

3. Can you implement? One of the most common issues with internet marketing programs that fail to reach fruition is a failure to implement.  Charge the agency with identifying the necessary skills and capabilities that your company will need. Identify who will be implementing what and whether there are dependencies, approvals and other contingencies that need to be dealt with in order for the advice being paid for can actually get implemented.

Whether it’s social, content, SEO, PPC, online PR, email marketing or any other online marketing tactic, it’s important to map out all that could be involved with execution amongst the departments and staff of a company and also the agency.  A classic SEO implementation failure example is where edits to a website template are recommended to allow search engines to crawl a site but the company is not able to implement because their IT staff don’t have access to the proprietary content management system code and the CMS vendor is no longer supporting the version installed.

4. Who’s in charge? Multiple cooks in the kitchen doesn’t work and neither does shared agency management responsibility. Companies that identify a lead agency liaison who has authority to make decisions will see a much more productive company/agency relationship. Otherwise mixed signals can result in output that no one will be accountable for and that doesn’t advance business goals.

Some agencies possess multiple levels or areas of capability and can be engaged for a variety of projects. Each project will have operational staff on both the client and agency sides responsible for running the programs. At the same time, there still needs to be a single person at the company with overall responsibility for the agency relationship whether it’s a Director or VP of Marketing to the CXO of a small or medium sized business.

5. Can you integrate? Rarely can internet marketing programs operate effectively as siloed tactics. To achieve proper levels of implementation, scale and to gain an advantage over the competition, working cooperatively and collaboratively with other parts of the organization is essential. It might be as simple as Marketing, IT and Public Relations. It might be as complex as the various groups within different businesses in different parts of the world.

Integration of internet marketing efforts also meets the challenges of consumer expectations across the spectrum of brand experiences. Integration also helps make more effective use of internet marketing resources across the organization.

6. Can you sustain? Many companies structure agency engagements as projects vs. ongoing relationships. The agency serves as a resource to define strategy and help with implementation and after a period of time disengages. Without agency oversight, it’s important to be able to implement processes to sustain the advice paid for.  It’s a shame to see a company benefit from a successful marketing agency engagement only to experience drops or fluctuations again after a year because they could not sustain new best practices or processes.

7. What resources do you have? Imagine hiring a top agency that fits with your organization’s culture and needs only to find out you don’t have the resources to implement the advice you’re getting?  Work with the agency to identify what resources are needed and then audit your own resources to make sure you have what is necessary to realize the full value of the consulting.

8. What are your strengths? Part of achieving a symbiotic and highly productive relationship with an agency is to understand your own organization’s strengths.  For example, you might have amazing content creation talent within subject matter experts but aren’t using them that way. Or you might consider your IT department as having expertise in SEO when they’ve never done keyword research, developed an optimized content plan or worked with web analytics to provide conversion rate optimization advice.

An agency should be able to identify the needed skills and practice areas for an engagement and can even help assess an organization’s strengths so brand and agency resources can be allocated in the most productive way possible.

9. What are all the possible positive impacts? Most companies hire an agency for SEO because they want to increase sales. But consumers search for more reasons than to purchase and companies publish content for more reasons than to make sales. SEO can attract a desired audience to any kind of content published, linked and shared online. A SEO engagement that shows an increase in search traffic, leads and sales as well as an increase in organic search traffic to customer support content, to news content and even job listings can help articulate the full range of impact from engaging and implementing SEO.

Think of all the possible impacts from an engagement whether it’s content, social community building or publicity that you’re after. A mature and innovative agency should be able to support this kind of impact assessment.

10. What are the risks? Certainly, hiring an agency that fits a company’s needs shouldn’t possess any risks, but it’s important to consider when an agency hasn’t been hired before, your business is obligated by industry regulations, your branch office has fuzzy rules about who gets to engage outside help – whether it’s corporate only, division, business units or regional operations.

It’s also important to consider the agency itself for potential risks. Do they have real and relevant experience? Are they staffed properly? Do they have mature processes in place? Do they engage in gray area or questionable tactics?  Are they a fit with your company’s culture?  Work to identify reputable agencies with relevant experience, capabilities and competent staff.

If you work at an agency, what are some of the client pre-qualification questions you like to ask? If you work at a company that hires digital marketing consultants and agencies, what are some of the questions they should be asking to ensure a better fit in the long run?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Outstanding post, Lee. Ironically, we’ve just been working on a discovery document that incorporates some of these questions! These aren’t just great questions for the client, they’re awesome for the agency to ask.

  2. Thanks Doug, I agree – it’s great to get everyone on the same page as much as possible and then be open to synchronizing the things you can’t get to right away.

  3. Thanks Lee, this onfo seems to be very helpful. Never though of considering these points. But now will really keep in mind..

  4. Hi Lee,

    First off – Great post. You’ve mentioned a couple of key (and undeniable) facts
    that a lot of Businesses and corporates have to realize – the first and a very
    important aspect of Client Experience is diversification (especially from a
    marketing point of view) – and the second most important aspect is Truth (from
    all parties included in the deal or negotiations). As being truthful to the client
    on all levels will ensure a fruitful and honest relationship and can bring a
    lot of extra business opportunities to the table if and when done correctly as
    to ensure the least possible amount of risk to the company hiring and the
    agency / company being hired alike.

    • Thanks Anton. Sometimes I think agencies can get a bit overzealous in their pursuit of clients and in that process, the meaning of “truth” becomes somewhat transient. Especially when there’s a pitch team that’s very different in skills than the actual implementation team.

  5. Great article Lee! I don’t usually post to point out any grammatical mistakes, but in Tip #8, “asses” instead of “assess” can be fitting when dealing with a corporate or agency. But if you can change it, just though I would point it out. Overall though, in all serious, this is a very beneficial read for both companies and agencies alike. I have already saved it in my favorites for future references.

  6. Avatar Pam Didner says

    Great points! Think it through before we act.

    • Thanks Pam – There’s a lot of “shoot, ask question later” going on, hopefully this helps a few companies make better choices 🙂

  7. Exactly Kim – trust is essential, especially for the necessary risk taking to be competitive.

  8. Avatar Javier Barro says

    I think your comment is very important, we need to maintain a link with our customers, I work on SEO in Miami, especially the Latin market which does not have much knowledge of the subject. I always try to educate them in the knowledge of the service that is being offered and take a friendly relationship

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    • how coincidentally that besides the date of the publishes article that coming from that ” employee” with great ideas and ability but may lack the tech know how, that employee emails her boss some articles on that i knew would help us and he could read in privacy. That being said bc my powerpoint of all the things needs to be improved he shot down and ignored. Now its all on our web sites. Second when i write an article and its published taking my name off is wrong. Oh here’s another idea you shot shot down but probably cite it; perfect pr and seo relationships.READ IT ill post that power point.

  10. I think you also should go for past and present perspectives, which is more important to judge the particular agency if you are interested to investing in it.